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Press Conference: The Cast and Crew of ‘Raya and The Last Dragon’ Celebrate Representation

Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is out and we had the chance to attend a press conference to learn from the cast their experiences with making this film and what they’re excited for audiences to experience. They dive into their process into recording their parts, what the representation in this movie means to them, and what they connected to most with the vibrant characters and themes that Disney has created. Joining the panel at the press conference that was moderated by Jeannie Mai included screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, producer Osnat Shurer, directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall, and the delightful cast of Thalia Tran (Little Noi), Izaac Wang (Boun), Benedict Wong (Tong), Sandra Oh (Virana), Daniel Dae Kim (Chief Benja), Gemma Chan (Namaari), Awkwafina (Sisu), and Kelly Marie Tran (Raya).

Daniel Dae Kim and Kelly Marie Tran spoke about their experiences in recording their lines remotely.

Kim: It was amazing actually being able to record from home, because, living in Hawaii, any time I try and travel to go shoot something, it’s at least five hours and sometimes eleven by plane. So, to be able to walk downstairs in my T-shirt and shorts was pretty great. Although, I will have to say, it wasn’t without hiccups. […] And as I was uploading my packet, I realized that I had recorded none of that past hour. So this is what happens when you leave the recording and the technical stuff to the actors.

K. Tran: Honestly, I feel like all the credit has to go to the story team, the editing team, and all of the incredible team behind the movie because all of the actors, at least in my experience, were all isolated, and we were recording by ourselves. To have seen the movie now totally finished and to see all the chemistry that these incredible characters have, I think that says a lot about the expertise of Disney animation and the incredible talent working behind this movie, and also about the cast obviously.

Director Carlos López Estrada addressed how special and how fitting this cast is to the characters they each portray.

Estrada: We’ve been talking about this in our other interviews, and the connection that all of the actors have with the material and with their characters has been so special. We’ve had teary conversations with all of you about the characters and what the story meant to you. And you don’t get to see that very often. We have a group of people that really believe in this movie and what it represents, and I think that just moved us and every single person working on the movie.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Young actors Izaac Wang and Thalia Tran touch upon what this movie means to them and to a young generation experiencing a movie with Southeast Asian representation. Wang also dressed for the occasion in a pah bieng to celebrate.

Wang: This is a pah bieng. It’s a ceremonial Lao traditional accessory that people usually wear to ceremonies and temples. […] And it’s pretty crazy to think that the 450 people who worked on this movie stuffed a bunch of different cultures to this single movie. It’s amazing to see all the things that are included in this movie, including the food and some of the weapons that you see, for example the Kali sticks that I saw, which really stood out to me. And there’s a bunch of other different things that I can’t even name because I don’t even know the name of them because I’ve been centered around a couple cultures my whole life, and just to see all these different cultures is really amazing to me.

T. Tran: [Playing] Noi is definitely nothing like I’ve ever done before because she obviously doesn’t use English words. She speaks in her own language, but that connection she has with her gang of Ongis and even with the relationship she develops with Tong and Raya and Boun and the whole gang, that sense of [camaraderie] and that strength within, that group of people and that sense of family is definitely something that I related to personally. And I know growing up in a Vietnamese family that family always, always comes first, from the traditions to just everyday life. Family is just such a huge part of it, especially now in quarantine with my family all the time, but it’s just something that definitely clicked with me. […] And for her to be so young […] to have to kind of raise herself with the Ongis and that sense of strength that she has to develop, I think that’s something that’s also very common in Southeast Asian families.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Writers Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen explained how they synthesized Southeast Asian representation into the movie.

Lim: I think it’s important to say that Kumandra is an entirely fantasy universe. It’s just the central inspiration is Southeast Asia. And rather than the simpler task of having one Southeast Asian country being reflected in one Kumandran land, to Disney’s credit, they really, really went deeper to find the underlying inspirations and core and threads that ran through so many of the communities. And the wonderful thing is what we all found, first of all, in all Southeast Asian countries and cultures there’s such a strong spirit of community. If you look at even one country, like the country I grew up in, Malaysia, there are so many races, cultures, religions. So many ways for us to view each other as the enemy or view each other as the other. But when you truly look at what makes our culture amazing and sings, whether it’s our arts or our food, the best street food in the world, it is because of all these different elements really coming together and creating something transcendent. So the filmmakers getting to that and wanting to tell the story of a divided world and seeing both sides of that aspect used all those inspirations to be able to tell the greater arc of the story. […] So hopefully, even if you know nothing about Southeast Asia that you’re really able to feel that love and that attention at every layer of our film.

Nguyen: [A] lot of the credit also goes to just our amazing visual development teams and the artists, the story artists, the animators, everyone who came on board to really create the look the feel, and the landscape of Kumandra. It is a fantasy, and I always equate it to like the Arthurian legend or “Dungeons and Dragons.” These Western fantasies based on like a mishmash of Western cultures. This is our chance to kind of create our Excalibur and our Arthurian legend. And so it was something to celebrate a culture that Adele and I grew up in and to make legendary heroes that our kids can aspire to.

Raya and the Last Dragon - Still
(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada then shared how Qui Nguyen also lent his martial arts knowledge and skills to the fighting choreography.

Hall: I think we were really fortunate that he also happened to be, Qui, one of the writers on the show. So we leaned on Qui quite a bit. […] I do remember one day he brought a giant bag of weapons into the studio to show us, I guess, that he was a legit martial arts fight choreographer. Which we didn’t doubt, but certainly after seeing that bag of weapons we probably treated him a little better. It might have been an intimidation move now that I think about it […].

Estrada: It was really special for the entire crew to have Qui just down the hall. Because the animators, the story artists, the [visual effects] people could just go and knock on his door and just say, like, hey, check this move out. Like, does this make sense? And then Qui would show them links to bring them into movies. Or just do some in-office demonstrations. To have that direct access to someone who is so knowledgeable in the combat of that region is, I think, is invaluable. And you really see it in the fights. They feel so different and so unique.

Nguyen: [A] lot of it also goes to Maggie Macdonald who choreographed all our reference fights. It was important for me to bring on a female fight choreographer. And she brought in a female team of fighters to do the reference because our two leads were Raya and Namaari, so I wanted to make sure that the different way a female body moves was right, and we wanted to honor that so it didn’t feel like we had Raya doing a move that The Rock should be doing. It should be something that really utilized speed, strength and agility. It was just amazing to have martial arts from Southeast Asia highlighted in this way because you often see in movies like this kung fu or karate.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Awkwafina talked about her process and inspiration in developing Sisu’s voice.

Awkwafina: I was obsessed with Genie. He’s one of my favorite characters from my childhood, and I think therefore there maybe was this subconscious thing. But, I think the real beauty here is that when I was approached to play Sisu and heard what her vibe was, I was given a chance to add my own voice to it and just simultaneously build her up with the directors who were always just more than willing to explore and play. And so I think she was really born out of that process. […] The really cool thing about Sisu is that she was part my voice too.

Finally, Gemma Chan and Kelly Marie Tran dive into how their respective characters are two sides of the same coin.

Chan: [At] their core, [Namaari and Raya] have so much in common. I love the fact that Namaari has this real kind of quite aggressive exterior, but underneath it all, she’s got this huge heart, and she has this real love for dragons that’s been there since childhood. […] We’ve all had those people in our lives that we have a love-hate relationship with, and I think it is such a fine line. I love the fact that Namaari and Raya have had that connection since childhood. And they’re rivals but they also have a lot in common.

K. Tran: I think setting up these characters as kids and just seeing how authentically they connect at a young age and then cutting forward and seeing the way that they’ve sort of been divided. It’s really incredible because, […] the idea that we have these two characters that could have switched places at one point. When I really think about my life when things like that have happened to me, I think about just how difficult it is to get out of your own biases when you’re looking at someone who you see as an enemy […]. They risk everything for this idea of community, this idea of what their relationship could have been this entire time. […] But their relationship in this movie is probably one of my favorites, just because of how complicated it is.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Raya and the Last Dragon is out now in theaters and streaming on Disney+ (with premier access)!

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